Alcohol Withdrawal & Sleep: Dealing with Insomnia & Other Sleep Disturbances
When people with significant physical alcohol dependence stop drinking, they will often experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.1 As one of several potential alcohol withdrawal symptoms, many experience sleep problems such as insomnia.2 It has been estimated that anywhere from 25% to 72% of people in recovery for an alcohol use disorder have some type of sleep disturbance.3
Common Alcohol Withdrawal Sleep Disturbances
It is not unusual for people who are drinking to use alcohol to get to sleep.2 However, the association between substance use and sleep problems may not always be so clear cut. In fact, the association between substance use and disturbed sleep may be bidirectional, in that sleep issues can increase the risk of substance use disorders (SUDs), while drug and alcohol use may in turn lead to the development of both acute and chronic sleep problems.4
Though many people attempt to self-medicate their troubled sleep with a drink or two, such a nightly ritual might not ultimately be having the desired effect and could actually factor into alcohol use disorder (AUD) development.2 In addition, while some might think that the effects of alcohol are helping them sleep, research demonstrates that people with AUD have relatively poorer sleep quality and other sleep issues during active use of alcohol.5
Sleep disturbances during alcohol withdrawal are a real concern, as they have been linked to relapse. In past studies, insomnia has been reported by anywhere from 36%–91% of people who are drinking or are within weeks of quitting alcohol.6
Some examples of drinking related sleep issues and other sleep problems from alcohol withdrawal include:2,3,7
- Sleep disordered breathing (e.g., sleep apnea).
- Decreased sleep efficiency.
- Disrupted sleep continuity.
- Frequent awakenings.
Alcohol Withdrawal Insomnia
Insomnia may include issues of difficulties falling asleep, problems staying asleep because of frequent or prolonged wakening episodes, or consistently unrefreshing sleep.2 Insomnia from alcohol withdrawal is a serious issue for many people in recovery from an AUD and is one of the most common, severe, and persistent symptoms that people experience during this process.8
Some studies indicate that insomnia can last for up to 3 years after a person stops drinking.8 However, when sobriety is maintained, sleep disturbances improve for many within the first 6 months.8 When present, alcohol-related insomnia can result in persistent daytime sleepiness and otherwise negatively impact daily functioning. When left unmanaged, insomnia after detox can interfere with AUD recovery and contribute to relapse.8
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Cause of Sleep Problems During Alcohol Withdrawal
There can be many causes of sleep problems during alcohol withdrawal. The daily balance between sleep and wakefulness involves a complicated interplay of neurological activity and neurotransmitter release.5Alcohol impacts many of the same brain processes involved in our sleep/wake cycles.5
Alcohol Withdrawal, Sleep, & Relapse
Research indicates that poor sleep in recovery can raise the risk of relapse.2 In addition, whether a person is recovering from an AUD or not, poor sleep quality is associated with a host of other health issues, including physical conditions, anxiety, depression, and suicidality.9
An important note about relapse—it is not a sign of treatment failure but rather a sign that a person needs changes in their treatment plan.10 If you do relapse, you need to speak with your provider to change, restart, or modify your treatment plan.10 Also, if your loved ones is showing signs of alcohol use again after recovery, help is available.
Alcohol Withdrawal and Detox
Alcohol withdrawal can be unpleasant and, in some cases, dangerous. Professional detoxification with medical withdrawal management can help keep people safe and comfortable in withdrawal by easing potentially severe symptoms and decreasing the risk of withdrawal complications such as seizures.
Though medical detox from alcohol and withdrawal management is an important early part of recovery, it is not a substitute for more comprehensive rehabilitation or treatment.1 Ongoing care at a rehab center for alcohol can help you better explore the reasons behind compulsive drinking and AUD, as well as connect you with aftercare and continued recovery support to help with sustained recovery beyond the initial treatment period.1
Alcohol Withdrawal and Sleep FAQs